Tradition is a slippery slope. We grasp for a handhold and cling to some treasured memory or memento, fearing what might happen if we let go. So we hold on for dear life, not realizing that not far below lies the firm soil of present reality, the best place to safely chart a path to the future.
I am basically a traditionalist. I love history, antiques, and stories from the past. A visit to my office will show you that. But these things must be kept in perspective or they can easily become shrines to what used to be.
Nostalgia always clouds opportunities in the present with the foggy memories of prior success. To worship at the shrine of the past is to plant the seeds of tomorrow’s harvest in the dry, sterile soil of yesterday’s dust. Those seeds might survive as relics in a museum, but in that environment, they will never produce life.
Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for traditionalists, not because of any disrespect for the past. As the, “Alpha and Omega” Jesus had the clearest perspective any human being could possibly have on the past, present, and future. He understood the limitations of viewing time only through our own lens of the present. Jesus criticized traditionalists because of what they enshrined: adherence to a set of rules only they were empowered to interpret and enforce, rather than valuing a vibrant relationship with the living God.
That’s the problem with religious tradition. With the best of intentions, we may wish to preserve a valid object or practice that brought yesterday’s blessing, without realizing that our efforts to do so will be no more successful than Israel’s efforts to preserve yesterday’s portion of manna. Those objects and traditions held over from the past can easily become idols, and distract us from worshipping the living God in the present.
Of course I’m not talking about abandoning our Christian heritage, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, or orthodox doctrine. I am talking about our tendency to consciously or unconsciously promote our own version of the past above those non-negotiable elements of our faith and practice.
A healthy view of tradition values the past for what is was. We learn from it, and move forward. We choose not to live there because we can’t. Those moments are gone forever. It was, but today is and thus is full of promise by acknowledging and accepting the present, and by planting our feet in and sowing seeds in the soil that now exists. We cannot live in a constant state of reminiscence without detachment from reality and eventually becoming critical of everyone and all things contemporary. As R.T. Kendall once observed, “The greatest opposition to what God is doing today comes from those who were on the cutting edge of what God was doing yesterday.”